What happens when mummy wants a sleepover?

THEY had spent the night together, he waking in her bed. In an early-morning fog, he turned over to spy a brightly-coloured toy, hastily half-hidden from sight.

"It was in the back of the room, and she clearly didn't want to tell me she had kids," David says. "Not that I would have cared."

That relationship didn't work out, for other reasons. But management consultant David, himself a single dad to an 11-year-old boy, has discovered over the years that it pays to be up front. "There's no point in hiding it - they're going to find out sooner or later anyway."

But when is the right time to tell? On an internet dating profile it can be written in black and white. What about at a party - is it in the heartbeat after eyes lock across the crowded room? And is it okay for the kids to walk in and collect that toy when Mummy is in bed with a stranger?

Navigating relationships is hard enough for the child-free. But if one or more partners has children, there is a lot more at stake.

"Some people call it baggage, which isn't a particularly nice word, but there's a lot going on in your life as a single parent," says Jill Goldson, family and relationship therapist. "And any new person is going to have to relate to this re-arranged family."

David shares custody of his son week-about with his ex-partner. The pair split five years ago, and he's since had several relationships. The most recent, also the most serious, lasted for two years.

Dating has never been harder, he says. "You don't have time to go out bar-hopping and sitting around in bars, so it's all about meeting people through your friends or online dating. Then there's the logistics of it - when you're looking after your kids ... when do you see that person?

It's pretty tough trying to get time together, and you've got to go through ex-partners or get baby-sitters and all these other things. It's easier when you have younger kids, and you could probably sneak the person out. But you don't want your ex-partner to know what's going on, because they might think it's irresponsible of you to have men or women staying over."

Then there's the ex-partner, who will always hang over the new relationship, even if you get on well, David says. "Because of the child, you will always be attached to that person. And if your new partner has kids, they could have a nutty ex who is trying to sabotage your relationship."

In his single-dad search for the one, David is not alone. According to Statistics New Zealand data, 20 per cent of all households in the country are run by single parents. This is on the rise, with an estimated 48,000 more single-parent families projected to join these ranks each year.

In a 2010 analysis, Government statistician Geoff Bascand put part of this effect down to normal population growth, but said there was also a higher rate of single parenting. "The latter is due to increasing numbers of separations and divorces, increasing rates of childbearing outside couple relationships, and more complex shared-care arrangements with parents residing in different households." By 2031, there would be quarter of a million single-parent families nationwide.

Small wonder then, that fitting romance in around the school runs and soccer practice can be a tricky business.

Palmerston North single mother Mandy Groombridge, 33, now actively tries to date men without kids. Her daughter's father is not part of their lives. "There is usually the other parent to consider and they can have a huge impact on how your relationship progresses and what contact you have with their kids. I just don't need the drama of the other children's parent to complicate our relationship or the different parenting styles to cause conflict. [My daughter] and I have our lives sorted, we are a really good team and I have found that other single parents and their children can mess with that."

Groombridge says she will often decide on a man based on how he gets along with her 6-year-old daughter. "Sometimes when they meet her it is obvious to me that it just won't work.

She is a great judge of character, so if she is uneasy with someone, it speaks volumes. In my last relationship she would never stay with him without me, she often complained about his language or the way he treated his children.

"She met someone recently that I have been spending time with and she is chatty and relaxed and excited, so I know that he is worth keeping around for a bit. She is very honest with me if she doesn't like someone and I have to take it seriously because, in reality, she is dating them too."

Auckland Single Parents Trust co-ordinator Julie Whitehouse puts it bluntly. "It's really, really f***ing hard," she says. "Children are the number one reason relationships break up, and they're the hardest thing to deal with when you come together as a blended family."

She recommends the first few dates at least be conducted without the kids. Not only do the couple have to get to know each other - it's hard to make googly eyes over demands for bedtime stories - but when the new partner meets the kids, the couple will already have a tight bond.

"They need to have that connection before they introduce the children. When a married couple have children, it's 'them and us', but in a single-parent family everyone becomes a team, the parents and children are equals. When you introduce a new person and start a 'them and us' again, that's when the children play up."

Whitehouse sees no problem with dating and having people to stay as long as the children feel safe. She cautions, however, that it becomes potentially riskier with older kids. "If you have daughters and you bring a man in, especially if they're older, the man will see them as women, not girls. The man can see the daughters in a sexual way. And if you've got boys, then there's testosterone fighting testosterone."

There are pitfalls for single parents too, she warns. Often there can be pressure to commit early, especially for solo mothers on benefits who must declare de facto relationships to Work and Income. Women with kids often find they are seen as a "family woman" and their new partner wants them to have another baby with them and settle down.

Aucklander Amy Calway, an event manager, and former contestant on MasterChef New Zealand, is the mother of two boys, aged 5 and 7. She recounts meeting one of these commit-aholics. "It got way too hot and heavy too quickly and I learnt a bit from that. He wanted to introduce me to his parents on date two, and the warning bells should have been ringing then. It turned out he wanted to find a wife and he thought that was going to be me, but I thought otherwise."

Calway, 34, uses the dating app Tinder and sees no problem dating different men. "I don't feel that having a date with someone is a commitment to having a romantic relationship, I'm just meeting someone new.

"I had a long-term partner when the kids were younger, and I almost chose that - I didn't want lots of different men coming through the children's lives.

"When that relationship ended I got my body right back into shape and quite aggressively started dating again. At one point I went on 10 dates in one week. I'm not saying that I kissed all those people, but I was taking it quite strongly."

But she wouldn't introduce a partner to her children for at least three to six months, and would do so in a social situation such as a barbecue or a picnic, when the man was one of several adults. "A lot of my girlfriends make the mistake of introducing the person too soon and, when it doesn't work out, it's confusing for the kids. It takes a long time to get to know someone."

But some take a different tack. Father-of-three Shabbir Wasiullah involved his kids in his most recent relationship from the beginning. It helped they already knew her from his social circle. Dates would take place at the park or museums, where the children could do activities while the adults chatted. "My kids are a part of me, I can't deny that. It was quite nice, actually."

He concedes it was easier when the kids were younger. Now they are 16, 14, and 9, which makes life more complicated. His partner also has a teenage daughter and, while the families tried living together for two years, it ultimately didn't work.

"The kids were not gelling together, so we thought it might be better for our relationship if we lived separately. We plan to try again when the kids are a bit older."

Before that relationship, he didn't introduce women to his kids unless it was serious. "I have a daughter who looks up to me and sons who look up to me and I try my best to set a good example."

How to make it work
As a therapist and in her work as a family mediator, Jill Goldson sees her share of relationships that have soured and affected the children. But new relationships can be positive - as long as a few golden rules are kept in mind.

If you're coming out of a break-up, it's important to rediscover your identity and work on your own well-being before bounding into a new relationship, Goldson says.

"It's not one size fits all, but the best time to embark on a new relationship is when you are resolved about the last one. You've also got to remember children need time to resolve it before they are introduced to a new partner, or you will encounter resistance in the form of jealousy, confusion or resentfulness."

For kids used to receiving attention from both parents, it has now halved and they then face challenges from this stranger's desire for attention. "If your children aren't happy, it's going to be difficult for you to make this relationship work."

Be open with children about going on dates, and make it clear any new person will never be a replacement for their mum or dad, Goldson says. "Generally children like to be informed about what's going on. Something like, 'This person will never be a replacement for Dad, you'll only ever have one dad, but I am starting to date other people.' That message doesn't only work for the children; it also works for the other parent - and the newcomer." Children will interpret too much sneaking around as deceit.

It's also important the child doesn't become the parent, worrying about whether the person they are dating is suitable and staying up late worrying about them when they're out. Any talk about the relationship with the child should be age-appropriate. But in the end, children are resilient and parents can worry too much, Goldson says. "I have one client who was so worried about the child's reception of her new partner she was almost over-compensating, and then the child was not particularly happy and neither was the mum. It is the right of separated parents to have that autonomy to meet a new person."

- Canvas

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